By Vasuki Nandan Mannem
Following the end of cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union, the world is witnessing a surge in conflicts based on religious and ethnic lines rather than the conflicts based on economic and class struggles as was seen during the period of the cold war. Given the enormity of these conflicts it is important to identify the various factors that determine ethnic conflict.
The traditional view on the cause of ethnic conflict was centred on ‘primordialism’, which claimed that each person has a natural connection to his kinsmen and through repeated conflicts these connections interfere with the state and the civil society. Thus, this view claims that ethnic conflict in a non-homogenous society is inescapable. This view generates a very strong conclusion about conflict. The instrumentalist view on ethnic conflict was developed to counter primordialism, which claimed that ethnic mobilization and conflict are a result of the actions of the group leaders who use ethnicity and race as instrumental means to achieve particular ends. Though there is merit to this argument, there are certain problems that this view fails to address. Even if the leaders of various communities and groups are assumed to be able to gain power by manipulating ethnic and group relations without even believing in the ideals themselves, it nonetheless poses the question as to why leaders mobilize masses for social and ethnic identities over class and economic ones (Varshney 2003). Past experience has shown that the masses are a lot more willing to take part in conflicts for ethnic and religious than economic ones.
John Elster said that “…If some people successfully exploit norms for self-interested purposes, it can only be because others are willing to let norms take precedence over self-interest.” Individual self-interest can be the basis of the immediate goals or payoffs of agents but not the long term priorities. These are defined by the various beliefs, cultural as well as religious norms of the people. The instrumental theories fail to explain how these beliefs are formed. It is important to realise that the importance of culture and norms in ethnic and group conflict, doesn’t validate the primordial argument. This is because, culture, norms and sometimes even ethnic groups are constructed. So rather than assuming that a particular form of group identity persists inevitably, it is important to realize the dynamic nature of culture and ethnic identities. For example, in response to the nature of democratic politics smaller caste groups came together to form larger ones while some other castes broke into smaller caste groups, thus centuries old cultural patterns were changed (Varshney 2003). Thus the transformation of culture and ethnic identities and the relationships between various groups are based on numerous social, political and economic factors prevalent in the society.
One of the major factors affecting group identities and ethnic conflict is the clash of the central tendencies of various cultures and religions. Varshney claims that this issue is not based on the diversity of cultures or religions but rather on the dominance of one group over another. People sometimes define their own identity around the identity of the group that they belong to. Though people are born to a group rather than choose to be part of one, they develop a deep sense of loyalty to that group. This sense of loyalty is not a mere outcome of the instrumental roles of the group or community leaders but rather follows from the cultural and historic inheritances and the power
relations within which individuals and groups operate. So, in many societies the minorities are associated with a greater sense of group identity as opposed to the people in majority. For example, Muslims on average in India are associated with a greater sense of belonging to their religious groups as opposed to many Hindus. These stem from the structural patterns of the society, dominance and subordination of one group over another and a history of prior conflict.
There are numerous structural factors which affect the relations between groups. One crucial factor is the extent of economic complementarity between professions of various economic groups. Montesquieu said that “Peace is a natural effect of trade”. Economic complementarity rather than competition between various groups fosters peaceful co-existence. Another important factor that affects group and ethnic conflict is based on the presence of pre-existing networks of civil society or the social capital. Social capital fostered through greater interaction on inter-ethnic lines allows for a more cohesive society with lesser ethnic conflicts. Varshney (1998) taking the example of Calicut and Aligarh, shows that despite having similar levels of composition of Hindu and Muslim populations, these two regions have been very different when it comes to communal conflict. He attributes this difference to the presence of social capital on inter-ethnic lines in Calicut and its absence in Aligarh.
Another important determinant of ethnic or group conflict is the extent of spatial segregation of communities in regions. Spatial segregation is the idea of the separation of certain social groups within the space of societies. This segregation could be on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or even income status. Spatial segregation has different origins and consequences depending on the specific basis of segregation as well as the structure and the cultural and historical context of the region. Segregation could be a result of historical reasons or could be an outcome of the social, political and economic fabric of the region. Segregation could either be forced or voluntary in nature. An example would be the Varna and Jati system in ancient India. Voluntary segregation on the other hand stems from aggregation of individual choices taking place within some socioeconomic structure. Social groups sometimes resort to segregation in order to strengthen their weak or blurred identity, as in the case of emerging middle-income groups or immigrant communities in search of social recognition.
Most of the literature on segregation primarily focuses on the impact of segregation on negative economic and social outcomes like lower productivity, higher crime, lower human capital, etc. (Benabou 1993 and Borjas 1998). Though segregation plays a crucial role in determining conflicts (as mentioned above), their relation is not a straight forward one. Segregation of communities may allow for a marginalized ethnic group to become cohesive and organize protests and rebellions. On the contrary, segregation could be associated with lower conflict levels due to a greater sense of solidarity for the people as well as to the society in general. So there are two opposing channels in play which determine the role of segregation in determining group and ethnic conflict.
Klaṧnja and Novta (2016) show that segregation along with the sizes of the various groups affect the role of segregation on ethnic conflict. Using the data from the Hindu-Muslim communal conflicts of 1980s and 1990s, they show that segregation has a positive effect on ethnic conflict and violence when there is huge disparity in the sizes of the various group, while it has a negative effect when both the groups have similar sizes. This is based on the idea that when one group
heavily dominates the regions, the clashes are less as smaller groups may refrain from engaging in conflicts as might feel that conflicts may not end in their favour. On the other hand, when groups are of similar sizes in a particular regions, segregation of a few residential areas may in fact allow for a greater number clashes as it promotes greater mobilization on group or ethnic lines.
Segregation of residential areas affects group identities in channels other than mere mobilization. Segregation of communities may even result in groups developing animosity towards each other due to lesser acceptance of each other’s culture and practices. The modern literature on conflict attributes the intolerance of the people towards members of other communities and groups as being the mere outcome of the actions of self-interested leaders. Though there is some validity to this argument, the onset of intolerance in the modern day cannot be completely attributed to this. Social and political circumstances determine how people shape and perceive their own group identity and react to other’s actions.
In order to understand this channel better, evolution of preferences have to be considered as an outcome of various social, political and economic factors taking place within the society. Dekel et. al. (2007) develop a theoretical model wherein strict Nash equilibria might cease to be evolutionary stable when agents are able to observe the opponent’s preferences. The outcome of this result is that it allows for the evolution of rational individual preferences based on the types of agents that people interact with.
Consider this argument, a more segregated region would result in lesser inter-ethnic interactions and greater intra-ethnic interactions. These interactions cause people mould their preferences in response to the actions of other agents. Eventually any deviation from these set of actions from the other agents may result in people being worse off. If people belonging to different groups can be seen to have difference preferences or goals, which can be an outcome of their cultural and ethnic identities, then interactions with different groups could allow for the possibility of greater harmony. This idea can be used to explain the possibility of intolerance as an outcome of segregation and the lack of interaction of members of one community with those of another. Chennai and Hyderabad are both metropolitan cities in South India. However, the former has had a far lower incidence of communal conflict than the latter. One important reason is that most of the Muslim population of Hyderabad resides in particular region i.e. the Old City. In Chennai, segregation on communal lines is a rare phenomenon. This results in a greater communal harmony, as it allows for increased interaction between groups belonging to various religions.
The above discussion tries to highlight a few reasons for the rise of ethnic conflicts especially seen from an Indian context. Though literature does emphasize the role of segregation on ethnic and group conflict, the role of segregation in fostering intolerance has not been focused on much.